Utilising dental therapists could combat access crisis, says think tank

A report exploring ways to combat the dental access crisis and cut costs in UK dentistry suggests that better utilising dental therapists could be the answer.

Released on 6 May, the Smiles All Round report from think tank Onward summarises the current access issues in UK dentistry and suggests several ways to combat them. One of the proposed solutions is allowing dental therapists to perform routine check-ups and other treatments within their scope.

The report says: ‘We should all, as a matter of course, see dental therapists for our routine appointments. Dental therapists would refer people to dentists as and when necessary – just like a GP refers people to a specialist for more complicated cases.’

Onward’s chief economist Tim Leunig emphasised that seeing a dentist at every appointment is not necessary. He said: ‘We need to liberalise dentistry to help more people see a dentist and stay healthy. For routine check-ups and procedures, there’s no need to see a fully qualified dentist instead of a dental therapist or hygienist.

‘It’s like insisting on having a doctor on a pharmacy’s front desk.’

‘This is not dumbing down’

Leunig also addressed the common misconception that seeing a dental therapist could lead to lower quality treatment. He said: ‘This is not dumbing down, or a reduction in quality. Dental therapists are highly trained and skilled. They have a three year degree in dentistry. They can do this job.’

Expanding on the benefits of a dental therapist-led model, he continued: ‘This would immediately increase the size of the workforce, as it would allow dental therapists to work on their own, running their own practices. Moving to a dental therapist-led system would also lower the cost of training by about half. That means that the government can train twice as many people as now, for the same cost.

‘Doubling the workforce over time is the best way to increase access, and to cut waiting lists in a way that is sustainable. Better dental health for all really would be something to smile about.’

‘A new, more cost-effective approach is needed’

The report also evaluates the potential efficacy of measures announced in the government’s dental recovery plan. It says that while the changes are ‘to be welcomed’, they may not represent a long-term improvement in dental access. This is because the 2.5 million appointments promised by the plan are a ‘one off boost, not a rise in the annual number of appointments’.

Allowing dental professionals to work to their full scope is described as ‘the most important part of the government’s plan’.

The report continues: ‘It is unlikely that any government will find enough money to ramp up the current system sufficiently to return NHS dentistry to a service that is available to all. This is why a new, more cost-effective approach is needed, in which people see professionals with an appropriate level of training.’

In order to comply with the public’s understanding of a dentist’s scope, Leunig suggests that dental therapists could be retitled as dentists. Dentists with five years of training would then be known as ‘consultant dentists’.

The report concludes that if its suggestions are followed, ‘access will improve, and the country will be healthier as a result.’

You can read the full report here.

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